There was much to do in the few days following my father’s death, but we had no complications, because both my mother and he had been very clear when they wrote their wills. My father had not wanted to write one, on the grounds that he had nothing in his name, but I had persuaded him that he had to because unexpected possessions could turn up. And in fact he certainly possessed a car.
He said he would leave that to me, but I thought that would not be correct given that I had persuaded him to write a will. He then wanted to leave it to Anila’s son, which seemed an eminently sensible idea, but she was adamant about not having a benefit for her family over and above what the children of my brother had. So in the end my father decided to give the car to Chamara who had looked after him devotedly over the last couple of years.
Anila, hyper-conscious of equity, suggested he leave it to both those who looked after him, but this was silly because Sunil, whom I had taken on when the Reconciliation Office closed, though a good worker, was not the old friend Chamara was regarded as by my father. I thought it best then not to consult Anila about the will in general, in particular the clause about a residual legatee, which was essential since one never knew what might pop up in my father’s name. Again he wanted to nominate me, but I insisted on Anila and he did not demur. This proved just as well, because there turned out to be a motorcycle he had bought for his last driver, Jayantha, and also some shares in my mother’s name.
The main house had been left by my mother to my sister and me jointly, on the grounds that we would not quarrel. This did not prove to be an accurate prediction, since we had very different tastes, but it was certainly true that no one could have doubted Anila’s financial integrity and sense of equity, and I hope she would say the same about me.My brother had a block at the back, which he had requested from my mother, just as her brother had asked for something from their mother in the early eighties. My brother had requested something while he was working in Hong Kong, since he felt he could not return unless he had a place of his own near the centre. My mother had been told that the house in Castle Lane, which my father had got for him, was difficult to travel from, and she was keen that he return, so he had been given a substantial block which he said he planned to build on in time. There was another block at the back which my mother had wanted sold, but the will she signed left it to me, which was just as well since that was where the majority of staff lived, and my father could not have survived without them. The front lawn had long belonged to the grand-daughter of my uncle, after my grandmother had gifted it as he had wanted, but they had been incredibly gracious about doing nothing with it during my father’s lifetime. It was sold shortly after he died, but Anila and I both feel we should be enormously grateful that they had allowed him the full use of Lakmahal while he lived.
He had wanted me to promise that I would provide a home for all his staff for as long as they needed one and, though I said I could not since I had no idea whether I could manage this financially, after he died I felt I had to do my best. In any case I had committed to keeping until he finished his schooling the grandson of Ekman, the boy of the fifties. Anila thought I was being silly and, though she respected the idea of ensuring schooling, said I should ask the young and not so young men – the boy of the eighties for instance – who worked outside and lived at home to find boarding places. But I felt I could not do that, and this has proved just as well, because it means Lakmahal continues full of life. And they do look after me well, while it has been an enormous comfort to me to continue to have Ekman, who is as sentimental about the days of my grandmother as I am.
As my father had requested, we had the funeral the day after he died. This was just as well because, even at that very short notice, the house was absolutely full from morning until evening. And then we interred the ashes at a very quiet ceremony a week later. We had not put up a memorial stone for my mother, because it had seemed best to put one up to both of them, commemorating them together. Anila managed finally to find stone that matched the monuments to my grandparents and their two elder sons (the ashes of Bishop Lakshman are in the Cathedral at Kurunagala) and finally we managed to put this up, earlier this year.
Apart from the ceremonial and logistical arrangements arising from my father’s death, I was kept busy in the days that followed, not only by Parliament but by a workshop in Matara that I had promised to conduct for the purpose of developing a syllabus for an English degree there. I had persuaded Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Paru Nagasunderam, the mainstays of the different English programmes I had devised over the years for university colleges and universities and schools, to come down with me, and it felt rather like old times to travel down with them and work on the curriculum.
I was heartened by the fact that three students from Sabaragamuwa were now on the staff there and proved both bright and helpful in the discussions we had. One was from the Affiliated University College days, and had been one of the bright ones I had selected for a special workshop intended to produce the teacher educators of the future. Typically, the rest of the students protested, on the grounds that such opportunities should be made available to everyone. Since I refused to engage in useless activity, the Vice-Chancellor had asked Chandra Amerasekera to arrange similar workshops – which of course proved impossible since she could not get able resource people. Still, the egalitarian ethos of the university was fulfilled, while the limited number we had worked with earlier have, most of them, gone on to higher things, vital positions in Technical and Advanced Technical Colleges, Journalism and Universities.
The other two students belonged to different vintages of the ordinary degree programme we had started in 1997. Neither of them had seemed amongst my brightest students at the time, but they were clearly better able to think than some of their colleagues. This was most satisfying, and the same thing happened recently when, at the first workshop I held for teachers at Technical Colleges, more than half of those who performed best were from Sabaragamuwa, again spread over several cohorts. Indeed, it was one of them, though a relatively quiet young lady now, whom I could not remember from university days, who did best in the grammar test I set them, and who thereby earned a trip to Germany which the Minister had promised for the best performance in the test.
But as enjoyable as the sessions with the staff was the time with Nirmali and Paru, beginning with the drive down for which Nirmali had provided sandwiches and marvelous coffee, as she had done all those years back. Sadly the old Ruhuna University guesthouse, designed by Geoffrey Bawa and set high above the sea, where I had spent many happy nights, had been closed for repair, but the university had booked a comfortable guesthouse, and looked after us extremely well.
I was also grateful that Vasantha Senanayake, without making a great point of it, arranged much bridge for me in the days immediately after the funeral. He was by far, to my mind, the most interesting and intelligent of the other new members of Parliament, and it was an added bonus that his great-grandfather and my grandfather had been the best of friends. These were, respectively, D S Senanayake and C L Wickremesinghe, the latter having been Government Agent at Anuradhapura when D S embarked on his thoughtful schemes to restore the tanks in the North Central Province and encourage new settlements and develop agriculture. Vasantha never ceased to remind me that I was of an older generation, and that he was in fact the cousin of my niece.
D S and C L and their wives had played bridge together regularly, and Vasantha and I had felt that one of the marks of the decline of civilization was that no one else in the Parliament played bridge. We had had hopes of Mr Swaminathan, who belonged to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s family but, decent stick that he is, he proved a great disappointment in this as in much else. And the last representatives of the old left were clearly not a patch on the giants of the past such as N M Perera.
My cousin Rohan, Theja’s younger brother, had flown to Colombo when my brother did, and was with Theja and me in the room when my father died. He had asked to arrange the 7th day almsgiving, which was good of him since I had felt bad about there not having been Buddhist rites at the funeral, given my sister’s deep commitment to a Christian perspective.
Rohan did a great job, making sure that everyone who cared was informed, both for the bana on the night of the 7th, and then for the almsgiving the next day. That was attended by both the President, and the Leader of the Opposition, who had spent much time at home when my father died, . Though my father, like me, found Ranil’s politics worrying, there was a close personal tie between them, and Ranil’s grief was most moving.
The President had not come to the funeral, but had called to say he was held up in Uva, where he was campaigning for the Provincial Council election. He had in fact tried to fly to Colombo when he heard of the death, but the weather had made this impossible. I fully understood his not being able to come, given the parlous state of the government’s campaign and the fact that he was now about the only popular politician on the government side. And his wife had come, and also the Speaker, while Gotabhaya, who got on very well with my father, came to the house and also to the funeral. Basil, understandably enough, came to neither, nor did Namal, though he too called to express his regrets.
My sister however was not pleased that the President had not been there the week before, and said so to him at the almsgiving. But for me what was saddest was how exhausted he looked. I told him then that I understood his not coming, and expressed appreciation of the fact that he had registered his affection when it meant something to my father, as when he had called from the Seychelles on his birthday.
Given what I was hearing about what was happening in Uva, and the sheer exhaustion of the President’s face, I have no doubt that, had he been properly advised, he would not have continued to rely on his own popularity and precipitated an early election when those he had placed in authority commanded neither respect nor affection. But sadly for him, the machine had taken over by then, the greed of those who were using him as a cash cow for their own aggrandizement. And I thought again how sad it was that my father had been too old to advise him in the last few years. Chamal had called when the crisis arose over the impeachment, and my father had I think given sensible advice, but he had not been sharp enough to get his point across forcefully, and without proper guidance the government had floundered from crisis to crisis in the last couple of years.